Friday, July 02, 2004

Indian Summer

It was a strange feeling to be, two weeks before, in the Bank of Bermuda London Office then, two weeks later, sitting on the floor of the Fatehpuri night shelter operated by Butterflies, the not-for-profit running programmes for street and working children in Delhi. I was visiting the shelter and its street children with our group from India (Bihar, Chennai, Jammu & Kashmir, Kolkata), and also from outside India (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal)!

My introductory week in India was a wonderful experience, but the odd thing was that...I felt ready for it, and right at home with the cross-cultural stuff, not in shock at all. I think that I'd been looking forward so long to doing or being somewhere different that it felt comfortable, not earth shattering. Mind you, my upcoming 3 months attachment with Butterflies, living as a Dilliwallah, might just drive me around the bend – the place is hot and steamy, the monsoon is about to begin, just getting around is a real trial (the Metro will help a lot - when it gets built); and, of course, it's crowded and difficult, dirty and dusty and filthy. But it’s also magnificent, wonderful, incredible, stupendous, amazing!!!

I arrived at about 11:00 at night. At first sight, the galaxy of airport lights could be nearly anywhere, except for the hot air blast that greets you as you step outside. We take a bus to just outside the terminal building, where the immigration queue stretches nearly outdoors. It's easy, but long-winded, getting through immigration, then finding your bags (by this time sitting on the floor), changing money, and going into the arrivals hall to book your pre-paid taxi. Not just any taxi – people shout at you to come with them, but you should stick with pre-paid, which means no outrageous overcharging.

I was staying at the India International Centre (IIC), a kind of nice hostel for academics/ internationals/scholars, and the taxi drivers are well acquainted with it. Except mine. And, stupidly, I didn't have the address, just a vague idea where it was. We roared off and overtook a car moseying along the ramp – my driver swerves to overtake, rolls down the window, screams out something about ‘parking’, and then leaves him for dust. We are heading for central Delhi at 70 mph along a bumpy motorway with mazes of criss-crossing roads merging and demerging, and came up behind a truck containing what looks like bales or sacks. On top of these, lit up by the taxi's headlights, were people asleep, sleeping soundly amongst all that light, noise and movement, tongues lolling out as they bounced and jounced along. At that point, I thought, "well, I must be in Asia!"

Got to the centre after some more stops and starts - it couldn't be that difficult to find as it's beside a New Delhi landmark, the Lodhi Gardens - and checked in about 1:30, exhausted. The next day I spent sleeping in and recovering, sampling a vegetarian thali at the Centre (very good, and only £2!), getting used to the heat, and getting ready for the week. I went out for a walk in the afternoon - a big mistake, as who the hell walks around in 39 degree C heat at the height of the afternoon? - and got to know a bit of New Delhi. There were hardly any natives out walking, a bad sign. They were all driving –
and Dilli drivers are all completely mad. They typically will try to squeeze 6 cars into 3 lanes, all honking and bleating and making noise to get ahead of one another. The trucks and buses all have garish painted designs on their rears saying "keep distance/sound horn", as if anyone needs encouragement. The traffic rules seem completely improvised. During the week, I even saw one van driving down a deserted road sounding its horn, just in case!

I walked by the Lodhi Gardens (home to wonderful ruins, and Sikander Lodhi's tomb) and up Janpath towards the centre, a fairly straight run which took me by Lutyen's late 30s creations of India Gate and the President's Palace (formerly the Viceroy's Palace) in Rajpath, and the parks that surround them, the National Gallery, and into the middle of the markets at the top of Janpath, very touristy. I also found the YMCA, where I would be spending the next 5 days in Planning and Training Meetings with Butterflies on the Children's Development Bank (CDB). And walked back to the IIC, exhausted!

I experimented with various dishes at the IIC dining room over the next few days, but finally decided that Indian was far and away the best. The IIC ended up costing about £220 all-in for the week, including 2 long telephone calls to Helen, accommodation, and meals, so very inexpensive. It’s also a cultural centre, with library, lectures, music and concerts and films and theatre, all surrounded by sumptuous gardens, so would be a nice place to spend my attachment (it lacked a swimming pool or anything like that, and the facilities were in some cases a tad basic and the service lacking, not an uncommon problem). It was a good place for this week - although the YMCA, despite falling far short of the IIC standard, was where everyone else was staying, so if I had known, that would have been more logical, to get to know the delegates.

The next 5 days followed a pattern: morning rip-off taxi to the YMCA (while not far away, it was a little too far for a walk, and I would arrive hot and sweaty in the already 30 degree heat), in the sessions from 9 or 9:30 or 10, with breaks for lunch and tea, then winding up about 4:30 or 5. The first two days I went back to the IIC in the evening, had dinner there, and read and wrote about the day's session. The next two, afternoon visits were arranged, during which Butterflies had arranged to show those of us new to Delhi some delights of the city. Wednesday we went to the Fatehpuri night shelter to meet the street children and talk to the staff, and to see the original incarnation of the CDB. It was in the middle of a bazaar, underneath the arches of Old Delhi Railway Station.

From there, we went looking around the market, Chandni Chowk, and the Lal Q'ila, or the Red Fort, the first a teeming anthill of market stalls, winding lanes, shoppers, market sellers, con artists, hustlers, food fryers, chaat purveyors, sights and sounds and smells all assaulting the senses.

The second was a fort built by Shahjahan, one of the Moghul emperors, and was sprawling, enormous, fantastic. All in terracotta stone enclosing vast parkland and various buildings used by the emperor - the Diwan-I-Am (where the tribal leaders would meet) and the Diwan-I-Khas (where the emperor would have private meetings), and others.

The next day we paid an afternoon visit to the Andhra Bank in South Delhi – who are helping out with the CDB – then went on to the Qutb Minar, another monument from the Moghul era, 240 feet high, lavishly and intricately decorated, and the centre of a large archaeological site from one of the previous seven cities of Delhi. I also saw my first cow in the street - standing in the middle of the median, serenely surveying the cars roaring by on all sides!

Friday saw the launch of the CDB at the Constitution Club, where the Indian constitution was framed in the 1940s, dinner at the YMCA, followed by beers at the India Habitat Centre - which was unfortunate, as most of us had an early start to get the bus to Agra. Butterflies had laid on a day's coach excursion for us. We didn't go by train because many of the monuments and buildings around Agra were far-flung – so having your own transport saves taxis and touts. However, the trip was 5 hours long. We broke it at a cafe, where we had either a western (omelette and toast) or Indian (idlies and sambhar) breakfast, and where I encountered my first Indian roadside toilet - luckily with plenty of tissue paper.

We left about 5:30 and arrived about 12:00, after stopping outside Agra at Akbar's Tomb. Akbar was another Moghul emperor who built many monuments in the area. This was only an appetiser for the Lal Q'ila in Agra, another magnificent terracotta-coloured fort with imperial buildings inside it, which was itself only an hors d’oeuvre for the Taj Mahal, across the dry river bed from the Agra Fort. After lunch, we went there and began the long trek to the Taj. We had the usual problem at the ticket gate - Indian Citizens get in for Rs. 10, and it costs Rs. 750 for everyone else, which means that...I cost more than everyone else put together! While this was a constant problem, as the security guards could identify me as foreign, there were plenty of other foreigners in the crowd that they didn't. I didn't mind - Butterflies wouldn't let me pay for anything, although I offered, and I was happy if people could avoid the higher rate - but then they stopped one of our Nepalese party, and insisted that he wasn't Indian (by the way, nobody was asked to provide any proof – it was all done on the racial judgment of those on the gate, a dubious policy). He said that he was from Sikkim - nice, as the people from Sikkim would of course look similar to their near neighbours. They wouldn't buy it!

This is one of the problems and one of the delights of India - the 1,000 different languages and dialects, the different tribes, peoples, regions, locales. In the training course, nobody spoke the same language!!! Many people could speak a bit or understand a bit of Hindi, but the main common language was English. The Assistant Programme Director from Chennai (Madras) told me that his group of accompanying street children spoke Tamil and a bit of English! So the English translations were not just for me, but for many of the participants. The folks from Nepal spoke English, and some Hindi as they were a mere 150 miles from Delhi.

Hassles aside, the Taj Mahal was...incredible. No picture really does it justice as it changes in appearance depending on your vantage point, and what the weather is like. It was the hottest day of the week, 40 degrees, and somewhat overcast and muggy, and it changed appearance as we were walking towards it! One felt like taking pictures of it constantly, just to capture the changes. It's just mesmerising. Totally constructed of marble, with black marble inscriptions from the Koran inlaid in white marble, and inlaid floral designs made of translucent jade, each flower made up of multiple pieces of jade cut precisely to fit together in the pattern...amazing!

On our return journey, we stopped at Mathura, the legendary birthplace of Krishna, and toured the temple complex. We had to check all items in a cloakroom and, when I asked why, was told about the communal violence that erupted on a fairly regular basis! Well...the most violent thing that happened when I was there was on the way back to the coach, where in the pitch black a cow nearly walked into me and speared me with its horns! We arrived back very late – about midnight – so I spent the next day sleeping in, reading and writing, and walking in the Lodhi Gardens during the afternoon, before getting ready for dinner. I was invited to a flat in South Delhi for a pre-flight dinner - the flight didn't depart until 02:00 Monday morning, timed I guess to arrive in London at 07:00, so there was plenty of time.

I ordered a taxi and was told to get the driver to ring my destination for directions – as I could find the place on the map, I didn’t see any need. Well, there was…the driver was okay getting to the general district (Chittaranjan Park), but terrible at finding the address (the blocks all have letters and numbers), and kept stopping to ask people, waving away my map, until I ended up directing him! Dinner was great - homemade Indian food - and I brought petha, the little doughnut-like cakes that I had bought at the Famous Petha shop on the Agra Road the previous day.

My taxi to the airport was uneventful but, as in most trips in the city, I saw something new or different: an open truck full of 60 people, all standing up and swaying as we drove along the highway at 50 mph.

The airport experience was, like most the world over, less than exciting, but quite complicated: all bags are x-rayed before check-in (I had to unpack mine to show off my 6 boxes of petha!), there are multiple, multiple checks right up until you climb on the plane, and it was a relief to finally get in my seat ready for take-off and a sleepless night en route to London, looking forward to my return in a few weeks time for my attachment.

When I go back, I have invites from the CDB partners to visit Kabul, Dacca, and Kathmandu, if I can fit them in!

Well, that's about it - whatever aspect of India you see in the newspapers and in the media, it's probably true - but this enormous and fascinating country also encompasses myriad other truths and realities. There's a substantial and growing Indian middle class founded on the new entrepreneurial wealth being created in the services and i.t. sectors – so while there is a lot of poverty, especially in the rural areas, that picture is gradually changing as well. And, how can you not love a country that actually has one season more than everybody else in the world? So much for the Indian Summer…for when I return next month, Delhi will be heavily into the Monsoon…
To see an album of pictures from this trip click here.

13 Comments:

Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Hi Tom Could not resist a good blog.
Web site great. Love you and miss you
Lynne

July 9, 2004 4:48 AM  
Blogger Big Mama said...

Journal is a wonderful read.

July 14, 2004 6:02 PM  
Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Miss you Tom. Send message.
Love Lynne

July 15, 2004 4:35 AM  
Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Miss you Tom. Send message.
Love Lynne

July 15, 2004 4:35 AM  
Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Miss you Tom. Send message.
Love Lynne

July 15, 2004 4:35 AM  
Blogger Hels said...

What an interestng read and the pics are fab. Can't wait to hear and see more now you are back there on attachment. Wish my grammar was as good as yours!!!
Take care. xx

July 17, 2004 10:06 AM  
Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Fantastic pictures. I too wish I could
express and write the way you do. Wonderful
idea. Love L

July 17, 2004 4:35 PM  
Blogger Big Mama said...

Love the photos. Where's your hat ?

July 17, 2004 8:59 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Hi Tom, thanks for the email. Looking forward to your next installment. Hope all is well yours Matt

July 19, 2004 2:52 PM  
Blogger BerlinBabs said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

July 20, 2004 12:13 AM  
Blogger anupama said...

hey tom, loved reading a whitey's take on my country...by the way, the religion is hindu, the language is hindi. i think you're doing a wonderful thing. haven't looked at the pictures yet.anupama

July 20, 2004 9:38 PM  
Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Great article and pictures. Can't wait
for next installment. Love L

July 21, 2004 3:52 AM  
Blogger JandT said...

Geezuz, great site!! just taking a few minutes this am to go over things. We look forward to more11

John&Trace

August 3, 2004 4:41 PM  

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